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Using Covers in Synch Licensing

April 24, 2018

Posted in: Film, Television

Great cover songs are hard to come by. For every great cover like Johnny Cash’s “Hurt,” there’s a hundred more that just don’t seem to land, as we saw last week with the release of Taylor Swift’s version of Earth Wind and Fire’s “September.” In the world of music licensing, cover songs are a powerful tool for ad campaigns, as they are able to draw the viewer in with a familiar tune, while also conveying a sense of newness and vision.
We’ll take a look at three examples of great cover songs in advertising, but first, how does an artist navigate the legalities of releasing a cover, and how does a supervisor go about clearing it?
As an artist, in order to legally release a cover song as a single or as part of an album, there are a few steps you need to take. If you recorded your own version of “September,” for example, you would own your own master recording, but you would need to secure a mechanical license which covers the actual composition, that is, the notes and arrangement that make up the song, which you did not originally create. Typically, this means paying a fee to a company like the Harry Fox Agency, or HFA. The fee will specify a certain rate based on the number of downloads, streams, or sales of your new recording. Outside of the HFA, you may also obtain a license by contacting the publisher or copyright holder directly.
Music supervisors have it a little more complicated. As a supervisor, you must clear both the master and publishing rights, which in the case of a cover song will most likely be different entities. Even if a small indie band with a great cover is excited to give you their master for a placement, it will still need to be cleared with the publisher of the original composition. Both parties must agree to a synchronization license, which gives permission to combine the audio with video. A great primer on clearing music for film and television can be found here.
With that out of the way, let’s take a look at a few recent striking cover songs – specifically
This trailer for “The Spy Who Dumped Me” features a great cover of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good.” Because of Nina’s trademark low singing register, you might think they booked a Nina Simone impersonator for the modernized recording, but you’d be wrong – the new vocalist is none other than Michael Buble.

Last year’s Baby Driver turned licensed music into a crucial part of the story, and of the main character. Director Edgar Wright approached music from every angle, including bold cover songs, such as Sky Ferreira’s “Easy,” a cover of The Commodores’ well known track.

In the finale of the first season of Netflix’s “Peaky Blinders,” we hear a cover of U2’s “Love is Blindness” performed by Jack White. Interestingly, this cover track was also used on the soundtrack for Baz Luhrmann’s film The Great Gatsby in 2013.

Just for good measure, we had to include arguably the most famous cover song in film history – Whitney Houston’s version of Dolly Parton’s ballad, “I Will Always Love You.” It’s hard to imagine a more impactful cover, and shows us that there is no limit to what’s possible when a song is seen from a new perspective.


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